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The price tag for cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford site just went up another $4.5 billion via Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Energy Department said Friday that its long-troubled attempt to build a plant to process highly radioactive sludge at a former nuclear weapons site in central Washington state will cost an additional $4.5 billion, raising the project’s price tag to $16.8 billion.

The Hanford treatment plant, a small industrial city with some two dozen facilities on a desert plateau along the Columbia River, is more than a decade behind schedule and will cost nearly four times the original estimate made in 2000.

The government aims to transform 56 million gallons of deadly sludge stored in leaky underground tanks into solid glass, which theoretically could then be stored safely for thousands of years.

[…]

But outside watchdogs say the giant cost increase could jeopardize the cleanup at a time when the incoming president, Donald Trump, has already sharply criticized high-cost government projects and contracts.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, which has helped whistle-blowers disclose problems at the site, said the new cost estimate puts a target on the plant that could lead the Energy Department to begin searching for lower-cost and less safe solutions to the waste problem.

One potential lower-cost remedy at Hanford, which has been used at other former nuclear waste sites, would be to pour concrete into the tanks to solidify the waste and then simply leave it in place. The risk is that the concrete might eventually break down, leak radioactivity into the groundwater and contaminate the Columbia River about seven miles away, Carpenter said.

“There are a lot of question marks about the fate of this facility,” Carpenter said.

[…]

In 2013, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu stopped most construction on the project after a whistle-blower warned about a potential for explosion from accumulated hydrogen gas in the melter tanks. In an effort to get the cleanup moving again, Chu’s successor, Ernest J. Moniz, ordered that some of the lower-level waste be solidified without any pretreatment — a so-called direct feed system — and on a faster schedule at the low-level melter.

The early processing could begin in 10 years or less, but the full capability for the most highly radioactive sludge that requires the high-level melter is now scheduled for a 2036 start-up, some 20 years past the original schedule, Carpenter said.

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